How to pick the best binoculars for travel

I'll admit it first: When looking at binoculars, I was always confused about what the numbers meant.

"Eye relief"?  "Field of view"? All I wanted was a good view. 

And, being an Airstream traveler, I wanted the ideal binoculars: good for a guy who wears eyeglasses, small and light yet powerful and clear—and also virtually indestructible because I hate having to pamper delicate equipment. Was that too much to ask?

This year I finally dug into the world of premium optics and got the answers. It turns out that I could get everything I wanted. You can too. Here's how to pick the ideal binoculars for your needs.

1. Don't chase the most "powerful" binoculars

For most people, the best magnification is 8x, which means you'll see things 8 times closer. That's about the optimum balance between power and steadiness. You can go to 10x if you want to see objects a bit further away, but beyond that you may find the view too jumpy.

With an 8x magnification, you get a nice wide "field of view"—which is just a way of saying that you get more of a scene, with the subject of your attention framed by the surroundings. I like that, because a bird or animal is more interesting in context.

2. Ask yourself, "Do I value portability or super-high performance?"

For most people, there's no need to carry big binoculars. You won't use them as much because they weigh a lot and they don't fit easily in bags or glove compartments. 

The lens size gives you a clue. This is the second number that is used to describe binoculars, like 8x32 or 10x42. The "8x" or "10x" is the magnification, and the second number is the size of the lens in millimeters. The bigger the lens, the more light it collects, which helps make the view brighter. 

An easy way to think about these two numbers is this: "How big?" x "How bright?" The first number is how "big" the thing you're observing will look. An 8x binocular will make it 8 times bigger, for example. The second number is how "bright" it will look, especially in low-light situations.

But again, bigger isn't always better. If you buy quality, you'll get a nice bright and clear view even with relatively small 21 or 30 mm lenses.

Smaller lenses mean much lighter and more portable binoculars, which can make the difference between "Oh cool, look at that!" and "I left the binoculars in the car."

If you want great binoculars that can be easily stashed in the glove box or a purse, go for the Swarovski Curio. This folding binocular is incredibly light and portable, and yet still gives you a superior view.

A customer of ours took his little Swarovskis on safari in Africa and soon everyone else on the safari was asking to borrow them because the view was so much better than what they'd brought.

3. For the best value, go mid-range.

While I love the folding Curio binoculars, my personal favorite is the middle of the line: the Swarovski Companion CL. The Companion is an ideal compromise between portability and performance, for just a little more than the Curio. In the photo above, Tothie is using the Companion CL 8x30 to get a closer look at the facial details on Mount Rushmore. 

The Companion doesn't fold down but it is still very small and light, and offers incredible performance. Because Swarovski Optik puts a ton of emphasis into quality optics, you will see things much more clearly compared to cheap binoculars that are bigger.

That's because top-quality binoculars have high-tech coatings and other technologies built in, which do amazing things for your view.

In other words, expensive small or mid-size binoculars are better than big cheap binoculars.

4. If you're an eyeglass wearer, you can still love binoculars.

I've worn glasses since I was in fourth grade. I've always found binoculars to be a pain. Viewing while wearing my glasses was usually so unsatisfactory that I usually took my glasses off and struggled to get the binoculars to focus. 

Well, that was with lesser optics. It turns out that good quality binoculars are not only easy for eyeglass wearers, they're a genuine joy to use. No more taking your glasses on and off to get a better look through the lenses. But the trick to this, again, is to invest in top-flight equipment.

(The technical spec you're looking for is "eye relief"—look for 16mm or higher. All Swarovski Optik binoculars are great for eyeglasses wearers.)

You also need to understand the function of the eye cups. The eye cups are there to position your eye the correct distance from the binocular lenses. Swarovski Optik binoculars have comfortable solid eyecups that you just twist to adjust so that the view is ideal for you.

If you are wearing glasses (even sunglasses) you can keep them on, and twist the eye cups clockwise so that they're flat. If you don't wear glasses, twist the eye cups counter-clockwise so they're extended. This puts your eyes the proper distance from the lenses.

5. Always go for the best you can afford.

As Benjamin Franklin said, "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten." Binoculars should be a lifetime purchase, and that's why we only recommend the best—Swarovski Optik

Sure, they're expensive. But if you buy the best it only hurts once, and after that you have a fine piece of equipment you'll never outgrow. They'll always be superior optics, durable, waterproof and built to last for generations.

That last point is not hyperbole. Swarovski Optik binoculars have a lifetime warranty—and I'm not talking about your life, but the life of the binoculars themselves. In other words, you can hand them down to your kids and the warranty will still be honored by Swarovski. The company has been around for over 70 years and they have a long-term view of things.

If price is no object, choose the amazing new NL Pure series. I tried several NL Pure binoculars and have been blown away every time at the clarity of image. They're still light (especially in the 32mm lens size) thanks to a magnesium frame, and the view is unbeatable at any price. 

But no matter what model you choose, you'll always be happy to have the best in class, and you'll enjoy your Airstream travel experience even more!

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